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Evidence Regarding Subjectivity in Approval Process

3 Jul

I’m going to deviate from my previous mentioned plan for today’s post.

I came across the article below in a weekly e-newsletter from AAAS / Science:
Editor’s Choice: Highlights of the Recent Literature, April 30, 2010

It asserts a finding that there is a 10% drop in publications and funding when a “superstar” researcher is subtracted abruptly from a team due to death.

“The authors’ analyses of these consequences favor a causal explanation in which the critical factor in these downward trends was being deprived of the intellectual input from these superstars, as opposed to a loss of collective experimental expertise or of privileged channels of communication to funding panels and journal editors.”

I urge you to consider, however, if this is not evidence that the selection of research for peer-reviewed publication is subjective, and driven by politics and personality over the substance of the ideas. Following is the article from the weekly e-newsletter.

By Gilbert Chin

It is no longer uncommon to see multi-authored original research papers, and in many instances, these studies represent the fruits of collaborations between multiple laboratories, especially in the biomedical sciences. How important are the lead researchers in these social and scientific networks? Answering this question empirically appears at first glance to be intractable, but Azoulay et al. have compiled a data set that enables them to take advantage of natural events—when still-active superstar researchers are subtracted from collaborations via death. Of the roughly 230,000 U.S. medical school faculty members, 10,000 were classified as elite according to seven objective professional criteria; during the last two decades of the 20th century, 112 of these scientists died suddenly. The effect on the productivity of the surviving faculty-level collaborators in these superstar-coauthor dyads was unambiguous and persistent: They suffered decrements of almost 10% in publications and funding. The authors’ analyses of these consequences favora causal explanation in which the critical factor in these downward trends was being deprived of the intellectual input from these superstars, as opposed to a loss of collective experimental expertise or of privileged channels of communication to funding panels and journal editors.

Q. J. Econ. 125, 549 (2010).  IMAGE: Leena Peltonen-Palotie, 1952–2010. Image Credit: PASI HYTTI


An alternate possibility is that the publishers and funders were willing to publish or fund boring or minor research because of the star, but when the star was gone, the dynamic changed. This has not been ruled out.

Why don’t I buy the conclusion of the analyses of Azuoulay et al? A team of researchers do most of the big decisions at the beginning of undertaking their project: the subject of the investigation, the method of investigation, key assumptions, etc. Following this, the research team and their investigation has a lot of inertia (resistance to change). The superstar on the team leaving abruptly might have changed aspects of presentation, or might recommend some adjustments to the actions of the team, but I find it hard to believe that an abrupt exit due to the death of the superstar researcher would change the main thrust or substance of the investigation. The substance of the investigation includes the inquiry into trying to answer some question about how or why the world works the way it does. This inquiry is what we expect to be the primary interest of the funding panel or journal editor. Do the other participants become any less professional? The dependence of research publication and funding on superstar researchers points to human factors independent from the research itself. Does the politics of research – as it is currently done – help us achieve the next level of discovery and knowledge?

In the end, the pursuit of knowledge is an activity involving people working together. And this will means that there is no escaping the human aspects of conflict, collaboration, prestige and intuitive judgements.


Working as an Independent Scholar on Theoretical Foundations

4 Feb

In the blog post before last (the first one), I raised some concerns about how the current system works for proposing and evaluating new theories. In the last blog post, shared some of my experience about the difficulties of receiving a fair hearing/review.

So why not just go with the flow and follow the usual path for being a grad student, post-grad, lecturer, or professor in an esteemed academic institution?

First of all, people who see new openings for leaving the beaten path are not the people who are willing to spend a lot of time to get perfect test scores. Rather, personal curiosity drives the process of discovery and education. One observer of this tension in my life observed that a person cannot serve two masters — the master that demands activities for getting good grades versus the master known as curiosity or the quest to know.

Secondly, is it practical to work on changing the foudation of a building by working within that building? In this context, the building is the construct ideas that the seasoned yeomen of the academic business all ascribe to. Working outside the building is really the only way that such a major change can be attempted. We want to preserve the good parts of the structure and put it on a foundation that provides better support and allows for a greater scope of development.

Then, consider if a graduate advisor would let a grad student take on some big issue like the theoretical underpinnings of mathematics. Not likely. An advisor wants to know that the grad student can be successful with the proposed topic. Then, post-doc and lecturer opportunities are related to the scholar’s grad work. So, the usual path (leading to peer reviewed and/or published theoretical work) pretty much assures that new theoretical work is incremental and built on existing approved foundations.

That’s enough.  Just a little bit of attention to address questions that may have been raised. Let’s move on.

The main thing I want to get to is that in working together on knowledge, we need to have some standards that govern theoretical development. I plan to take this up in my next blog post.

Some Personal Experience

31 Jan

As an independent scholar, I am not the kind of scholar who can get her work peer reviewed. 

From my previous post: “People that work for the journal or the book publisher provide an initial filter to see if a work should be  accepted for peer review. They evaluate if the person is a reasonable candidate to be regarded well by others in the field and they consider the abstract to see if it seems reasonable and offers something new or interesting.” I don’t fit the criteria since I do not have a doctorate from an esteemed school with an esteemed advisor.

 That’s just the way it is.

Maybe it is relevant to share some examples of attempts to get my work reviewed by people in the academic community; although, without knowing the quality of my work, it’s hard to know how justified my brush-offs were.

I developed a paper that captured some defects I have observed in Set Theory — 2 problems with formal set theory and 2 problems with informal set theory. There’s at least one well-known problem with Set Theory associated with a certain type of paradox — so it’s not like Set Theory has an unblemished reputation. However in the absence of another theory in the first half of the 20th century to fill its role as the theoretical foundation of Mathematics, scholars have moved forward with the idea that everything is okay with Set Theory as long as practitioners abandon formalism and avoid the special cases leading to the paradoxes. (1)

If you are up for the challenge, you can judge for yourself if I support my claim in this paper: “Why Set Theory is Not an Acceptable Theoretical Foundation for Mathematics.”
I am interested to know if my arguments can be refuted.

I submitted this paper to “The Journal of the American Mathematical Society” (under 2000 Mathematics Subject Classifications 03A05 and 03E99) in September 2002. I was prepared that it would not be published, but I was hoping for some review and comments on my work. I only received a short email saying “I am sorry to say that we will not be able to publish your paper.” No comments, no feedback.

In another case, I found a post-doc in Mathematics at MIT who was willing to read my paper on Set Theory and look at my paper proposing a new foundation for Mathematics. He obtained copies of my references. He seemed to give it a serious go. But he did not deliver any observations on problems with my reasoning.

He consulted with the professor that he took his one course on set theory with.

The professor indicated that formal Set Theory and the Predicate Calculus of formal Mathematical Logic are 2 distinct theoretical systems. This pertains to the first problem with formal set theory.

Per the textbooks I read, formal Set Theory is a formal theory defined within the theory of formal theories, the Predicate Calculus (of Mathematical Logic). Formal Set Theory is formally used to define numbers. So there is a problem with circular definition. Numbers are used to define the Predicate Calculus (supposedly because counting numbers are part of natural language), and Predicate Calculus is the theoretical setting in which formal Set Theory is defined, and formal Set Theory is the theory used to formally define numbers (via successive sets). Natural numbers define the Predicate Calculus, the Predicate Calculus defines Set Theory, and Set Theory defines natural numbers.

Doesn’t it seem on the face of it that the attempt to understand the theoretical foundations of mathematics should not start with using numbers as primitive concepts?

I don’t agree with the position put forward by the professor that formal Set Theory and the Predicate Calculus are independent. Consider this. If Set Theory is defined outside of the Predicate Calculus, is it a formal theory? What makes a theory a formal theory according to the tenets of academic mathematics? I’m interested to know what other scholars think.

The post-doc in a sense agreed with one of the problems of informal set theory, because it is involved with the known paradoxes. He seems to think that the axioms of Zermelo-Frankel Set Theory correct the problem, but ZF Set Theory is a case of formal set theory, not informal set theory. He felt I was wasting people’s time to include this known problem in my paper. I include this issue because it is not some weirdness that can be fixed by avoidance; it is a serious flaw in which “the whole” and “a part, not all, of the whole” are NOT distincly different; they can be the same. 

In the end, the post-doc confessed that he believed the ideas and work of the respected giants of the field must be more correct than the ideas of a lone independent female scholar. I asked, “What about the new numbers defined in my paper on the new foundation for mathematics.” He said, “What are they useful for?”

I have to tell you that I was shocked to get this reaction from a mathematician. Yes, the “imaginary” number also got this reaction; I just thought that a modern mathematician would understand from the example of i (the square root of -1) that numbers are objects worthy of analysis and most likely a practical purpose will show up over time. We agreed to disagree and went our separate ways.

So one of the changes that I would love to see in academic science — working together on knowledge — is a way for independent scholars and scholars from lesser schools to get their work reviewed. Consider that if the current system of academic review existed in 1905, that Albert Einstein would NOT have had his 3 seminal articles published — he was an independent scholar working as a patent clerk.

I think it is relevant to this ongoing monologue to share some of my experience so that you have more understanding about personal context related to the subject. Also, it allows you to get to know me a little bit.


1. The Mathematical Experience. Philip J Davis & Ruben Hersh. Houghton-Mifflin, Boston; copyright 1981 by Birkh
Page 331-337
“The theory of sets was developed by Cantor as a new and fundamental branch of mathematics in its own right. …
“Set theory at first seemed to be almost the same as logic. The set-theory relation of inclusion, A is a subset of B, can always be rewritten as the logical relation of implication, ‘If A, then B.’ So it seemed possible that set-theory-logic could serve as the foundation for all of mathematics. ‘Logic,’ as understood in this context, refers to the fundamental laws of reason, the bedrock of the universe. …
“Since all mathematics can be reduced to set theory, all one need consider is the foundation of set theory. However, it was Russell himself who discovered that the seemingly transparent notion of set contained unexpected traps.
“The Russell paradox and the other antinomies showed that intuitive logic, far from being more secure than classical mathematics, was actually much riskier, for it could lead to contradictions in a way that never happens in arithmetic or geometry.
“This was the ‘crisis in foundations,’ the central issue in the famous controversies of the first quarter of this century. Three principal remedies were proposed.
“… In 1930, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems showed that the Hilbert program was unattainable — that any consistent formal system strong enough to contain elementary arithmetic would be unable to prove its own consistency. The search for secure foundations has never recovered from this defeat.”
Page 344
“In recent years, a reaction against formalism has been growing. In recent mathematical research, there is a turn toward the concrete and the applicable.”
Page 347-348
“Thus, Lakatos applied his epistemological analysis, not to formalized mathematics, but to informal mathematics, mathematics in process of growth and discovery, which is of course mathematics as it is known to mathematicians and students of mathematics. Formalized mathematics, to which most philosophizing has been devoted in recent years, is in fact hardly to be found anywhere on earth or in heaven outside the texts and journals of symbolic logic.”